How emojis dominate the world’s chatrooms

Japanese Shigetaka Kurita, the creator of emoji charachters. Kurita sketched out one of the first emojis in 1999 for an early mobile Internet platform. (AFP)
Updated 17 July 2019

How emojis dominate the world’s chatrooms

  • Considered one of the fastest growing languages in the world, emojis are getting more and more popular among different age groups
  • A language expert says while the emoji fad will not die down just yet, it will not replace words

DUBAI: What started as a Japanese invention has taken the world by storm, including in the Middle East where the use of emojis, a modern picture-based form, often features in online and phone texts.

Today is World Emoji Day, marking the rapidly evolving system that some suggest is a “major throwback” to primitive picture-based communication forms.

And the use of emojis in the Middle East has shown how these simple images help to cross language barriers — there’s little confusion over the smiley face, although the same cannot be said for some of the other images.

The culture of emojis has become so significant that a film has been made about them, “The Emoji Movie,” which was the first feature to receive a public screening in Saudi Arabia when the ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018.

The concept was created in 1999 by a Japanese artist, Shigetaka Kurita, to convey information such as the weather and traffic without having to spell out words like “cloudy” or “traffic jam,” for an early mobile Internet platform.

 Big tech firms such as Apple and Google picked up on the trend, which eventually led to its worldwide use.

The use of emojis, like any language, is constantly evolving, and the California-based non-profit corporation Unicode Consortium, the international body that regulates the use of text in digital platforms allowing users from all over the world to view web-based text in different languages and scripts, has devised a system that has standardized the process.

The fad quickly reached Arab and Muslim mobile users, who in 2015 were recognized in a new set of emojis that were culturally relevant to them — the Kaaba, prayer beads known as masbaha, and the flag of the Palestinian territories. In the Unicode 2017 update, the hijab emoji was added, demonstrating how emojis become relevant for different communities.

“Emojis help us express our feelings, in terms of happiness, anger, surprise, shocks and so on. Emojis, right now, are considered a language themselves,” Omar Sattar, a language professor at Skyline University Collegein Sharjah, UAE, said, adding that emojis “sometimes convey more than words.”

“Words are not as effective, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words,” said Sattar, referring to the human inclination to use symbols and pictures to communicate.

Some linguists say that emojis are comparable to prehistoric communication systems, when the first humans carved symbols on cave walls, using them to convey and store information.


Linguist Vyv Evans, writing for the British newspaper The Guardian, suggested emojis were like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the formal writing system of ancient Egypt.

Today, in an almost 360-degree turn, humans are using pictures again to talk to each other, especially when in 2007 emojis were officially recognized by the Unicode Consortium.

Tech giants Apple and Google then created a separate keyboard for emojis, further normalizing their use. Others adopted it, with organizations such as the EU using in official communications.

“Emojis have become part of our lives,” Sattar said. “We use them on a daily basis. Everybody uses them to express their feelings and emotions. Using them in official communication has become normal, especially when it comes to marketing and customer service. People actually react more when they see pictures.”

He said emojis, now at about 3,000 in number, have become a universal language that “transcends borders,” given that people “don’t have to learn grammar and or alphabets to be able to use emojis, as opposed to an actual language like Arabic or English.”

But Sattar said emojis were not going to replace words. “We have more and more emojis, and it’s going to be very difficult to remember all of these things, what they mean exactly, and how to use them correctly,” he said.

“We also need to remember that different platforms use different pictures — they are not the same. It’s going to be really difficult to remember and memorize all of these different emojis that would sometimes mean the same but would look different.”

Culture plays a crucial role in understanding and using emojis, said Sattar, explaining how one emoji can mean different things to people.

He said although emojis are a modern way of communication, they are still governed by cultural norms and can easily be taken out of context — in some cases to the point where people are jailed.

Reports by UAE dailies Khaleej Times and Emarat Al-Youm said a man was accused of defaming his colleague when he commented on a social media post with a fox emoji. The fox emoji signified cunning, deceit and trickery for the receiver, who filed a case against the sender.

Another problematic emoji in the region is the middle finger, which under UAE law is considered a form of indecent communication and could cause legal trouble for senders or land them in jail.

However, courts consider the relationship between the two communicating sides before giving a final verdict, ensuring there is a genuine intent to offend, lawyer Hamad Al-Debani told Emarat Al-Youm.

There are other emojis that could be deemed offensive in the region, including a number of animals, food and gestures.

Emojis help us express our feelings in terms of happiness, anger, surprise, shocks and so on. Emojis, right now, are considered a language in themself.

Omar Sattar. Language professor at Skyline University College

Since Muslims are prohibited from consuming pork and consider the pig as a dirty animal, the emoji should be used with caution. Dogs are another animal that can be used as an insult or a curse against other people in Arabic.

Emojis of alcoholic drinks could also be seen as offensive, as they go against Islamic traditions. In some Arab regions, the hand gesture where the index finger and thumb form an “O” and which means OK in a number of countries, signifies a threat and warning to the receiver.

In 2015, a virtual keyboard app company, Swiftkey, conducted a study on how speakers of different languages used emojis. They concluded that Arabic speakers use flowers and plants emojis four times more than average, and, are among the least likely to use alcohol-themed emojis.

They are also likely to use fruit emojis, dancing lady in red and stars. The most-used insect emoji by Arabic speakers is the ant, and among the flowers it is the rose.

Despite the early popularity of emojis, they did not always have as much variety as they do now. Between 2012 and 2015, a wave of popular demand for emojis to become more inclusive and representative in skin color and other specifications was on the rise, and Unicode adopted a set of new icons. 

The new update made it possible for users to change the skin tone of some emojis, specifically those that represented people and not just emotions.

There remains a plethora of emojis with cultural significance that are missing from the selection. For instance, although a number of Arabic dishes have an international presence, such as shawarma and falafel, they are still absent from emoji options.

However, Unicode accepts proposals for characters and fonts to be added if a proposal has not been submitted earlier. This means that with each update, the selection becomes more diverse and inclusive.


Arab News launches Japanese-language online edition

Updated 21 October 2019

Arab News launches Japanese-language online edition

  • News website in both Japanese and English is part of a more digital and more global direction of the Middle East’s leading English language daily

TOKYO: Arab News, the Middle East’s leading English language daily, has launched an eagerly awaited Japanese-language online edition as part of its ongoing global expansion.

As a symbol of the cordial business, trading and cultural relations between the Kingdom and Japan, commenced coverage to coincide with the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito in the Japanese capital.

The news website, which is available in both Japanese and English, will focus on enabling exchange of information between Japan and the Arab world in business, current affairs as well as arts and culture.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the launch of Arab News Japan on Oct. 21, Taro Kono, Japan’s defense minister, said: “It will be good to have news in Japanese so many Japanese can read about the Arab world.

“I think the Middle East has a lot to offer. Yes, I saw we import a lot of oil and we export a lot of Toyota, but I think our relations need to go beyond that. Japan is racially and religiously very neutral, and we have no negative footprint in history, so we can be a good broker in conflict in the Middle East and that’s what we should be doing.

“So when I was foreign minister, I opened up in Japan new political dialogue, and that was the first time we did it in Cairo, and we are supposed to do it sometime this year for the second time, and I visited almost every single country in the Middle East except Libya, Yemen and Syria, but I guess I visited almost all the rest of the countries, and some several times.

“We share the common values, we have a high respect for the elders and we think that the family is very important values, so we stay in the east of the Asian continent and the “Middle East” in the “West” (of the continent), kind of funny, but we share the common values, and to me we are friends and I think we need to work together.

“In order to do that we need to know what people in the Middle East are actually thinking, what is happening on daily basis and we haven’t got the source for that but now Arab News is now in Japan, and they are going to start news in Japanese. And I bet they would carry news in Japan in Arabic as well, so this is a very good means to exchange the information between the middle east and Japan, so I am very much looking forward to it and this is the beginning of a new era. Our emperor has enthronement ceremony tomorrow, so I mean there can be no better way to start this endeavor. So, welcome Arab News.”

The Japanese-language edition is the first in a foreign language – and the second under the Arab News brand following the highly successful launch of the Pakistan edition.

The content of is a mix of original reporting from both the Middle East and Japan and translated feed of some of Arab News’s most important news and views.

Arab News is part of the regional publishing group Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG). It has been the English newspaper of record for Saudi Arabia and the region for over 40 years.

Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News editor-in-chief had announced the Japanese-language edition project at the G1 Global conference in Tokyo on Sept. 16, describing it as “part of our more digital, more global direction.”

He had added: “We hope that the new service helps bring about a better mutual understanding of both our rich cultures and become a trusted communication channel where our friends in Japan can rely on us for credible information and insightful analysis.”

In the Arab world, Saudi Arabia is one of Japan’s most important economic partners. A major part of Japan’s energy imports come from Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom imports manufactured goods and electronic equipment from Japan, and is a significant destination for Japanese financial investment.

In his speech on the occasion, Majid Al-Qasabi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Commerce and Investment said: “We flew from Riyadh to Dubai and from Dubai to Tokyo. I am very honored to be among you here today.

“Japan is a long reliable strategic partner and friend. Since 1955, business has been great between the two countries, we appreciate all the cooperation, the partnerships and the business with the Japanese community. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a special relation, especially the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia with the new Emperor.

“We hope that Japan will have a fruitful future and I would like to congratulate Arab News, this is a great opportunity, a moment in history, at least we should be present here with our friends in Japan.”

Also at the launch ceremony was Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo and the first woman ever to hold the post. “I want to congratulate Arab News on the launch of their Japanese edition,” she told the audience.

“And this is wonderful news for me in particular as I have worked to strengthen ties between Japan and the Middle East for so many years.

Koike is no stranger to the Middle East or the Arab world. She studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo, graduating in sociology, and spent five years in Cairo in the 1970s, a time she thinks of fondly.

“After college and as a journalist I had the opportunity to interview many Arab leaders, as a member of the Diet and when visiting the Middle East from time to time.

“I tried to create numerous opportunities to create mutual understanding in Japan and Arab countries.

“And since being elected as governor of Tokyo, I am always inviting many Islamic diplomats and ambassadors from Islamic countries to celebrate the Iftar during Ramadan.

“We are nine months away from the start of the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is creating a welcoming environment for international tourists and of course those from the Islamic countries.

“I hope these visitors – especially those from Saudi Arabia – can visit with peace of mind and comfort, in Tokyo where tradition and innovation coexist.

“I hope Arab News will be able to act as a bridge to promote mutual understanding between Japan and Saudi Arabia and all the Middle East.”

In an exclusive interview to Arab News in July this year, Koike had said she believed Saudi Arabia was moving in the right direction, referring to women’s empowerment and the changes happening in the country under Vision 2030.

“The challenge in what is going on in Saudi Arabia is really meaningful to enrich the Saudi culture and Saudi society, to make it richer and more diverse,” she had said.

Incidentally, Saudi officials are working with their Japanese counterparts on the formal handover for the G20 leaders’ summit, which will take place in the Kingdom next year, following the highly successful event held in Osaka, Japan, in June.

At that event, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, that Japan was a country dear to the hearts of all Saudis.

“We will work together to prepare for the G20 summit 2020 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Crown Prince said.

For his part, Abe had praised the Kingdom’s progress in accordance with the Vision 2030 strategy.